Each state and every city in the U.S. has its own distinct history. Tennessee, and my hometown of Knoxville, is no exception, and J.L. and I have been reading lately about Knoxville’s early history. This last week we visited Blount Mansion, the home of U.S. Constitution signer William Blount, appointed by George Washington as the first governor for the Southwest Territory. The home, beautifully maintained, is now a National Historic Landmark.  Blount Mansion is also Knoxville’s only National Historic Landmark and the city’s oldest operating museum.

Backing up a little bit to earlier history, first settlers came exploring into what is now East Tennessee in the 1500s and 1600s. Then in the 1700s, English and French settlers began to venture into the area to settle. Following treaties with the Cherokee, more settlers soon  followed. The founder of Knoxville, James White (1747-1821) – a relative of mine through the Whites in my family line – came to the Knoxville area in the 1780s. Service in the Revolutionary War earned him a land grant of one-thousand acres along the Tennessee River in what is now downtown Knoxville. White built his home, a two-story log cabin, high on the hill above the Tennessee River on what is now Hill Avenue. He later added other structures around the original house and then enclosed all with a fort or stockade fence in 1786. The James White Fort became a central point for travelers and traders. In 1790 the fort was chosen as the capital of the Southwest Territory, which existed from 1790-1796.

Several candidates were suggested for governor of the new Southwest Territory, but President George Washington chose William Blount, a NC Constitutional Convention delegate and past NC state legislator, who had earlier promoted the settlement of the area. Blount was sworn in at Mount Vernon in 1790. William Blount chose James White’s fort as the capital of the new territory and in 1791 White’s son-in-law Charles McClung created a plat of lots for the new city, which they named Knoxville after William Blount’s superior in the war department, General Henry Knox. James White sold the land and donated the lots for the permanent city of Knoxville. He also donated land for the First Presbyterian Church and cemetery and for Blount College, which later became the University of Tennessee.  Also In 1791, the Treaty of Holston was negotiated with the Cherokee, encouraging further settlement of the new territory and capital. Supreme power of the territory rested with the governor, William Blount—a vast responsibility.

William Blount and his wife, Mary Grainger “Molsey” Blount, were both aristocracy in North Carolina, born of prominent families. The couple had nine children. Mary wasn’t impressed with the idea of moving to a log cabin in a primitive territory and insisted her husband build her a proper house if she moved to follow him to the new Southwest Territory. William heeded her desires and built her Blount Mansion, a fine two-storied home with beautiful glass windows. The Cherokee in the area had never seen windows like these and called the home the ‘house of many eyes.’

With time, the house grew and changed, expanding with need. William and Mary Blount brought a group of their slaves with them from their NC plantation. One, a man called Cupid, was a skillful carpenter and architect and he is credited for overseeing and building the Blounts’ house. His wife Sal was the family’s main cook. In past there was a slave cabin on the property which no longer exists today. …I imagine early settlers and travelers saw this home as impressive, so different from other early cabins and structures. The new home held gracious furnishings, cabinets of books and china, dishes, instruments like a harpsicord and dulcimer for entertainment, and fine paintings like the one of George Washington on glass in the main dining  room.

On our tour of Blount Mansion, we were led through all the downstairs rooms of the main house.  William and Mary Blount’s bedroom had a lovely draped bed which looked so small and narrow compared to our beds today. Our guide Patsy explained how servants tightened the ropes of the bed every day – which is where the words “sleep tight” came from. And because the mattress was stuffed with straw, that often needed to be refreshed, the term “don’t let the bed bugs bite” originated – not always in humor! A spinner’s weasel in the home that hanks of yard could be wound on would “pop” when full, giving us the term “pop goes the weasel.”

J.L. was fascinated, too, with a deck of cards on the table with the suits shown, that we know, but with no numbers as we are used to. I read later that numbers weren’t added to cards until the early 1900s. The home was filled with items, like these, that all held a story of past times. We were surprised to see how many clever tools and gadgets were created, even in that time, for snuffing out candles, lighting a cigar, tightening a woman’s stays, or helping with a shave.

In addition to the main house and its rooms, a separate kitchen for cooking stood behind the main house, furnished as it might have been in the 1700s. All cooking was done in the fireplace and a fire was kept burning all day long there. I’m sure William and Mary’s slaves didn’t have an easy life taking care of all the meals, laundry, cleaning, and care with so few conveniences as we know today. Yet in the kitchen, as in other rooms of the house, were many clever gadgets and tools to help get the work jobs done more efficiently. All of these like candle molds, roasters for meat, elaborate cookie molds, and a clever gadget for toasting bread were fun to learn about.

J.L. and I really enjoyed our tour of this beautiful old home and so enjoyed learning about its history. As well as serving as a home, Blount Mansion was an office and headquarters for the Southwest Territory. A building outside was William Blount’s office with chairs, desks, an early American flag, decanters for liquor, old quill pens, ink pots, spectacles, and framed documents of importance on the wall.  There is a big copy of the Constitution in Blount’s office … and you can look and find his, and others, signatures there.  The desk in the photo was especially significant as this is the desk where the papers were signed to later create the state of Tennessee which became the nation’s sixteenth state on June 1st, 1796.

Over time, as often happens with historic homes, the Blount Mansion became neglected and in the 1920s was scheduled to be leveled and demolished for a parking lot.  Mary Boyce Temple (1856-1929) was responsible for saving the structure.  Mary, a prominent woman in Knoxville, was also the founder and regent of the Bonny Kate Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at that time. She helped launch the preservation movement to save Blount Mansion and raised $35,000 to purchase the home in 1925 and save it from destruction. The women of Knoxville have had a lot to do with preserving and keeping Blount Mansion for all to enjoy and most of the volunteers who give tours of the historic home are women.

In 1934, the Knoxville Garden Club worked to develop a garden at Blount Mansion. The Garden Club engaged Alden Hopkins, Williamsburg’s garden landscaper and later William Pitkin, an early landscape artist, tp create the plans for the garden and to finish the work of the gardens to be like Blount Mansion’s gardens would have been in the 1700s-1800s. The Knoxville Garden Club has continued to care for the gardens at Blount Mansion ever since, for over ninety years, and Blount Mansion’s gardens are a little green oasis in Knoxville’s downtown. Weddings and special events are often held here and the Knoxville Garden Club also does educational programs here.

In 1957, the city purchased and saved the 1818 Craighead Jackson House, that sits adjacent to Blount Mansion on Hill Avenue, renovated it and opened it as the new visitor center and event arena for Blount Mansion. This is the first stop for visitors who come to see this historic site. There is a fee to tour the historic home, its out buildings and gardens, and the tour begins at the Visitor Center, starting with a film and look around a small historic room.  Then the tour guide leads everyone from the visitor center to the front of the home, saying goodbye to them at the end of the tour at the back gate of the house.

If you live in or near the Knoxville area and are interested in its history, I would encourage you to visit Blount Mansion—and perhaps the James White Fort, also on Hill Avenue just down the street. Both are interesting …J.L. and I have visited and toured both and learned a lot about our city in its early days and its leaders. The address for Blount Mansion is 2oo West Hill Avenue in downtown Knoxville and you will find information about the home’s hours, tour times, fees, and directions at the Blount Mansion website at:

{Dear Readers: I am not a historian or an expert on area history, so if I have made a slight error in my account, please overlook it. Also realize that different sites often argue about the precise dates and exact accounts of historical events. Thank you.]


Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act

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